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Reporter's Notebook: From both sides of the gates of Foxconn

8 a.m., Foxconn Longhua Facility, Shenzhen. An iPad assembly line leader conducts roll call. Nearly a quarter million people work at this facility, making it one of the largest factories in the world.

When they're not working, Foxconn workers can play soccer at the factory campus' soccer stadium, go swimming in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or go work out at the gym.

Nets suspended twenty feet off the ground were installed in 2010, in the midst of a spate of suicides at the Longhua facility. To date, the nets have saved the life of one worker.

Louis Woo, Special Assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, stands at his desk in his spartan office at the company's Longhua facility.

A Foxconn worker on the iPad assembly line.

The first misconception I had about Foxconn’s Longhua facility in the city of Shenzhen was that I’ve always called it a ‘factory’  -- technically, it is. But after you enter the gates and walk around, you quickly realize that it’s also a city -- 240,000 people work here. Nearly 50,000 of them live on campus in shared dorm rooms. There’s a main drag lined on both sides with fast-food restaurants, banks, cafes, grocery stores, a wedding photo shop, and an automated library. There are basketball courts, tennis courts, a gym, two enormous swimming pools, and a bright green astroturf soccer stadium smack-dab in the middle of campus. There’s a radio station -- Voice of Foxconn -- and a television news station. Longhua even has its own fire department, located right on main street. This is not what comes to mind when you think “Chinese factory.”
 
Yet it is: as you walk beyond the civic center of Longhua, the buildings begin to change. You find yourself walking through alleys surrounded by looming factory buildings. You stop, look up, and they’re everywhere: the nets. In 2010, Foxconn installed thick netting on buildings throughout this campus. They jut out horizontally from the exterior walls, suspended 20 feet off the ground. They were a response to a string of suicides that year which plagued the company. Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, tells me that when they purchased these nets in the spring of 2010, the company wiped out the entire Asian supply of netting for weeks. That’s what happens when the world’s tenth largest employer makes a quick economic decision. I look up at them and think of the people who jumped. I tell Louis how depressing they look, just suspended up there, waiting to catch someone. “I don’t care how they look,” he tells me, “if we can save one life with these nets, they’re completely worth it.”
 
I ask him if the nets have saved lives. “After we installed the nets in the summer of 2010,” Louis says with a sigh, “two workers jumped. One of them died. The other lived.”
 
If there’s anyone who understands the life of a factory worker, it’s Louis. He worked his first factory job at the age of 12, in the early 1960s, in Hong Kong. His mother and father operated a food service inside a plastic flower factory. Each day, Louis and his family woke up at 6 a.m. He cooked food and washed dishes for multiple shifts of workers. He remembers punching out at 2 a.m. to sleep for four hours on the assembly line table before starting another shift. Louis later reentered school, and earned a spot at Stanford University, where he completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. These days, Louis has white, wispy hair, he wears wire-frame glasses, and he usually dresses business casual. But he still works around the clock as the main spokesman for the largest private employer in China. He shakes his head when I ask him why CEO Terry Gou hasn’t hired more PR help, given the size of the company and how Foxconn has been thrust over and over into the media spotlight. Louis tells me Terry Gou was always confident that Foxconn was doing the right thing, so he never thought he needed the help. “Until the spate of suicides in 2010 when Terry asked me to come in to help on this issue, we never hired a PR company,” he tells me. “Even two years ago, we were doing, what? Eighty billion U.S. dollars a year? I don’t think you can imagine any company anywhere in the world with the size of $80 billion of revenue a year without a PR company.”
 
I’m reminded of this frugality minutes later, when I visit Louis’ office. Drab yellow linoleum floors, white-paneled walls, a few tables, a few chairs, and a cheap, blue drape shutting out light from the outside. A quick tour of the campus, however, proves frugality has its limits at Foxconn. The company has spent millions on the aforementioned sports facilities, Internet bars, and organized activities for its workers.
 
But no matter how many diversions are available to workers, this is still assembly line work. Prior to my Foxconn and Apple-sponsored tour of the Longhua campus, I spent days outside the gates, without the presence of Foxconn management, talking to workers. We talked about the pay, the overtime, the conditions, and life back in their home village. We also talked about the general perception that Americans have of what conditions are like inside the factory. When I gave examples of some of the American media coverage of the working conditions at Foxconn, many workers laughed, telling me it’s not really that bad. Foxconn worker Zhang Dawei grew up in the impoverished countryside of Jiangsu Province. He asked me how Americans could even begin to understand the complexities of growing up poor in China, only to migrate to a factory thousands of miles away. “I’ve got a cousin who lives in the U.S., and from what I understand, the U.S. is a very rich country, at its peak; I can only dream of what it must be like. But China is so poor. I think it’s useless for us to judge each others’ countries without truly understanding the realities on the ground.”
 
But that doesn’t mean the workers don’t have complaints. One of the most common complaints I heard: being treated unfairly by immediate supervisors. Some workers complained about being forced to work even though they were sick. Others said their supervisors didn’t let them bill the overtime they had actually worked.  From dozens of interviews, favoritism seems common among Foxconn supervisors.  And, of course, nobody is a fan of the work. “It’s incredibly boring and repetitive,” an iPad assembly line worker named Xu told me, “but I just sort of lose myself a little while I do the work and think about other things; I think about happy moments in my life. My friends. My family. Anything. If I can do that, then the work doesn’t seem so tiring.”
 
Xu sends the equivalent of 3,000 U.S. dollars a year to his family in rural Hubei province. After three years here, he says he’s ready to go home next year. He thinks he’s saved enough to start his own construction business back in his home village; something small, he says, that’ll make him a little more money -- a little more money than what his parents made as farmers.

Tune into Marketplace next week as I delve deeper into the lives of these workers and take you behind the scenes of Foxconn. Visit our special project page: The Apple Economy.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

When they're not working, Foxconn workers can play soccer at the factory campus' soccer stadium, go swimming in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, or go work out at the gym.

Nets suspended twenty feet off the ground were installed in 2010, in the midst of a spate of suicides at the Longhua facility. To date, the nets have saved the life of one worker.

Louis Woo, Special Assistant to Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, stands at his desk in his spartan office at the company's Longhua facility.

A Foxconn worker on the iPad assembly line.

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